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Leadership myths that could undo your progress

Someone once told me that meeting old friends can lengthen your life. I couldn't agree more. Two weekends ago I had a really good dinner party with my childhood friends. Thirty-six years after we first met at kindergarten, 80 of us gathered again for one of the biggest reunions we'd ever held.

I must say that although I may have met many interesting people, those encounters never feel the same as meeting old friends. There was a sense of purity and authenticity. As Mater Dei school students, we were pretty much taught to be selfless and ready to serve. "Serviam" -- Latin for "I will serve" -- is the school's symbol and motto.

Growing up with these values, most of my friends unsurprisingly started off their careers being really positive, authentic and trusting. And when they become managers, they continued to serve, collaborate and empower others -- rather than using a top-down hierarchical style.

We only realise later in life -- and unfortunately later than we should -- that the real world is not full of the kind of people we were taught to become. Despite being liked by most and delivering good work, many of my friends are struggling to understand their career setbacks. Some are disheartened by the widespread existence of office politics and are thinking of leaving their jobs -- and some have already left to build their own businesses.

So the question is, despite the existence of a vast leadership development industry and the large sums of money spent on leadership training, why are employee disengagement, career dissatisfaction and high staff turnover so widespread? Why is the world still full of leaders who are hired, promoted and given large compensation when most seem to exhibit only the opposite to what the leadership development industry is advocating?

I think the main problem is that most of us are taught to believe in the leadership myth: that a good leader is someone who is honest and modest, hard-working, builds trust and cares for others.

We are fed too many feel-good leadership stories that modesty, positive thinking and hard work will get us far in our careers. As a result, many of us spend too much time at our desks delivering great work, thinking we don't need to be self-promoters and everyone will see how good we are.

Believing in a fair world feels good but in reality that may not be the case.

In the real world, good leaders are really hard to find and engaged workplaces are rare. According to Gallup research, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged, and the rest are either not engaged, indifferent or potentially hostile to their companies. Low employee engagement and low workplace performance are the direct results of bad leadership.

Managing relationships and using psychology to influence others may seem wrong, but if you look around, you will see that the most successful people are not necessarily the smartest or the most liked. Rather, they are the ones who know how to communicate, network and build relationships with influential people both inside and outside their organisations.

In the end, these "political" people become leaders who continue to hire and promote those similar to themselves.

But since most organisations are still functioning fine with these leaders, why should anyone bother to make any changes? Why don't we just throw away the leadership development books, join these leaders and become more like them?

I have seen too many cases of people either giving in or giving up. Personally, I don't think anyone should need to make those extreme choices. If good leadership principles are not supported by empirical evidence, and not enough good people are taking leading roles, it should be our mission to keep fighting for what is right.

We can start by taking a more realistic approach (which may often be uncomfortable) by spending more time "managing up" and building networks with those who matter. Apart from promoting the culture of modesty, authenticity and caring, we should not forget to make sure that our work is noticed and fully appreciated by those above us.

Breeding a great leader is certainly a complicated process. It takes time and effort to become one without compromising on good principles. By encouraging people to accept the truth and follow a more realistic route, we can hope to build more effective leaders at the individual, institutional and national levels. And with enough good leaders, I believe our serious social, economic and environmental issues can be resolved and we should have a fairer and better world, like the one we always wish for.

Dr Tientip Subhanij holds a PhD in economics from the University of Cambridge, and currently has a career in banking as well as academia. She can be reached at